Building Empathy For Googlebot

Personas are a challenging topic. The connected flower-child type marketers love to relate to their visitors in a personal way, but personas turn human insights into strategies and tactics. This feels manipulative to them, and they quickly return to their propaganda-like slogans: “We love our customers.”

Zombie-eyed analyst types generally can’t be bothered with personas. “The answers are in the data,” they say, in the same tone that Gollum used when referring to his “precious.”

Personas are, well, personal to every business. You can’t cheat off of anyone else’s paper when putting them together. Whether you’re going to spend 30 minutes dashing off what you know about your online visitors or invest in a full workup to hack your company’s intelligence, you have to do the work. You can’t borrow from someone else’s case study.

There is one exception, and this visitor may be on your site as you read this.

I’m going to use a persona to help you relate to Googlebot. All of the components are here.

Note: I’m sure those of you experienced in SEO could add to this persona. Please do so in the comments.


Name: Googlebot

Education: Ph.D. in Kindergarten

Gender: Male. Definitely male.


While Googlebot is one of the most pervasive presences on the Internet, little is known about him. It is widely believed that he has an undiagnosed combination of savant syndrome and autistic disorder.

This condition is marked by super-human analytical powers combined with an inability to connect basic concepts or understand simple social norms. Googlebot does not have a sense of humor.

Another reason for this diagnosis is Googlebot’s amazing but selective memory. Googlebot has an unwavering fascination with words and an uncanny ability to remember the links that connect the Internet’s far flung pages.

It is widely believed that Googlebot is also good at counting large sums of money.

Googlebot can identify and recall a seemingly unlimited number of images and videos, but has no understanding of their meaning.

Mode Of Persuasion: Methodical

Googlebot analyzes information slowly and logically. Methodical visitors need lots of detailed information.

Visitor Commentary

These are Googlebot’s needs in his own words:

I’m an excellent surfer. I come to your site on Tuesday… definitely Tuesday afternoon. I read your pages. I see your words. That tells me everything about you. You use some words over and over and I can tell what you talk about. Of course there are the meta tags. Descriptions, descriptions are good; and the page title. Headings have words and I like to count the words in headings and see if they are in other places on your site too.

Links. I like links, definitely. Link text has words and I like to compare them, compare them to the other words in the other places. The link text words tell me about the place they link to. Must … resist … urge … to … follow … until … done … here.

Of course, you have links back to your site, 497 links — definitely 497 – and the words on those links – they call it anchor text, but anchors are on ships and ships float on water and I don’t see many sites about ships and water — and I can compare those link words to the words in the other places on your site.

I’m an excellent surfer, you know.

Uh-oh. Your site doesn’t change much. 99.93% of text is the same as last time I visited, 99.93%, defnitely 99.93.

Uh-oh. Images. Video. Strange blobs of pixels. Of course, I can’t see them, but sometimes they have words, alt text words and then I know everything about them and I can compare those words to the other words on the site.

Sometimes people try to trick me with invisible text or wrong keywords meta tags or funny links from sites with very different words, and then I stop visiting and stop counting words and stop tracking links and then the site disappears since I don’t like lying liars.

Of course, I’m an excellent surfer.

Questions To Be Answered

What questions Googlebot is trying to answer on your site.

  1. Which pages to index (sitemap.xml)
  2. Which pages to skip (robots.txt)
  3. Primary domain (canonical info)
  4. Words that define each page site (title tag, description meta tag, keyword meta tag)
  5. Words that readers can see: Heading tags, body copy
  6. Words that readers cannot see: Image alt text and title text
  7. Links to other sites
  8. Links from other sites telling Googlebot what the site is about

Calls To Action

This is how we ask Googlebot to take action. For Googlebot, a “conversion” can be defined as getting a page on our site indexed in the Google database.

Sitemap.xml tells Googlebot which pages to index and how to prioritize them.

Internal links with keywords in the anchor text helps Googlebot find pages and associate words with those pages.

Recommended Strategies

  • Do not attempt to sell Googlebot anything or invite him to join your email list.
  • Change content frequently. Googlebot loves blogs.
  • Don’t attempt to contact Googlebot or Google support.
  • Use video. Googlebot seems to like video, even though he can’t understand it.
  • Create content that makes other sites link to you.
  • Link to sites that have words similar to yours.
  • Put transcripts of videos on the page.

Is All Of This Necessary?

While it may seem unnecessary to experienced SEOs to have a persona for Googlebot, think of the copywriters who must write for the site, but don’t have SEO experience. Think of the designers that may not understand the search implications of their media choices. Think of the executives who don’t understand why they should invest in SEO.

All of these people will gain a better understanding of Googlebot and the challenges we face when designing a site for him (or her).

Now think about the human visitors to the site. How would a few personas help everyone communicate with real people?

As it turns out, personas help a lot.

Thanks to Shelley Ellis and Rose Holston for their help on this column. For more on visitor personas, read Waiting for Your Cat to Bark? by Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Analytics | Search & Conversion


About The Author: is the Conversion Scientist at Conversion Sciences and author of Your Customer Creation Equation: Unexpected Website Forumulas of The Conversion Scientist. Follow Brian at The Conversion Scientist blog and on Twitter @bmassey

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn


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  • Jordan Kerr

    Been reading articles on SEO for many years now and this is one of the most unique ways I’ve read to think about optimization. Well done.

  • Shanna

    Really enjoyed this article, especially in my current plight to educate content writers in optimization (if a blogger or writer, read: “brainwash creative writers to mass-produce marketing crap”). I am not interested in traffic for the sake of traffic, as much as I am interested in leveraging an untapped resource. Getting them to “empathize” with the search engines is hard, and that is before the savant syndrome and autism disorder (also obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia?). Regardless, can you offer any other advice on helping bloggers loose the ways of olde, print-style “creative”, and gain a little insight on constructing bridges between great content and the searchers looking for it?

  • loiswingerson

    A brilliant addition to the SEO blogosphere. But as content manager of a medical search engine (SearchMedica) that is heavy on psychiatric content, I disagree somewhat with your diagnosis. Googlebot clearly has Asperger syndrome, which is characterized by an obsession with certain limited kinds of knowledge and a distinct ineptitude at social relations.

  • Brian Massey

    Jordan, thanks for the kind words. Personas are pretty effective, no?

  • Brian Massey

    Shanna, I’ve always believed that great content does it’s own SEO. That really isn’t true.

    Every blogger has a unique audience, and every audience has unique tastes. Take the titles of this post: Demograhics, Description, Customer Commentary, etc. Write them on a piece of paper, and then fill them out for your blog audience. The Customer Commentary opens new universes of keywords because it is written in the voice of the reader.

    Pay extra attention to “Questions to be Answered.” These tell you what topics to write about.

    Then watch your traffic, comments, email subscribers, liking and retweeting for each post. You’ll quickly learn what your audience wants.

    Example: I thought this would be one of my most unpopular columns for the reasons I detail in the intro. It appears I’ll get some 300 tweets and 20 Facebook shares. That makes it one of my more popular ones.

    A hot column here at Search Engine Land will get no less than 600 shares and LOTS of comments. So I know I’m not writing “front page” material yet.

    I’m getting better, though.

    Do the personas, and have fun.


  • Brian Massey


    I fretted about making light of a diagnosis that can cause so much pain to families. If it wasn’t clear, Googlebot was modeled after Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie “Rainman.” The real-life person that the movie borrowed from was diagnosed with a combination of Savant syndrome and Autistic disorder, according to Wikipedia (FWIW).

    Given your career, I suspect you are better qualified to judge than me. Most computers must be treated as “Aspys” according to Kathy Sierra (

    Best regards,

  • Stupidscript

    For me, one of the more illuminating bits was, “Uh-oh. Your site doesn’t change much. 99.93% of text is the same as last time I visited, 99.93%, defnitely 99.93.”

    And yet, while it was important enough to include in the limited quantity of words that make up the article, a suggestion to keep the site’s content fresh was not included in “Recommended Strategies”.

    Regardless, I agree that frequently-updated content is one of the things any visitor wants to see.

    Thanks for the framework!

  • Stupidscript

    D’oh! If I could take it back, I would.

    I see “Change Content Frequently” in there, now. Would Googlebot have missed it? Not likely. ;)

  • Jeremy Bencken

    Hi Brian, thoight you’d enjoy this version of a persona I created to go with my ProductCamp Austin presentation, “Meet Googlebot, the Persona that Determines Your SEO Success,” back in January. It was good to see you there… it’s too bad our presentations time slots overlapped. Anyway here are the links: and


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